SEC M5: 02.25.15 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 25th, 2015

SEC_morning5

  1. I’m not ashamed to admit it: There are few things in my hoops world that I enjoy more than watching Willie Cauley-Stein move his feet. Observing a seven-footer glide across the perimeter in a defensive stance is art. Hyperbole aside, Cauley-Stein’s versatility is why NBCSports.com‘s Rob Dauster has him in the top five of his most recent Player of the Year rankings. By his logic, the junior should be the front-runner for the SEC POY award, but is he? My gut tells me that Arkansas’ Bobby Portis or LSU’s Jordan Mickey will get the honor based on their gaudier stats, but it probably should go to Cauley-Stein. As a team, Kentucky is on the verge of accomplishing something quite historic. Even if the Wildcats don’t run the table, their dominance has been the story of this year’s SEC and no one player captures that better than Cauley-Stein.
  2. As a point guard, Andrew Harrison is playing his best basketball of the season. The sophomore has averaged 4.4 assists and just 1.6 turnovers per game in his last eight outings, punctuated with nine assists and a single turnover on Saturday against Auburn. This uptick in production has coincided with a visit from his father, who also spent time with his brother Aaron last year before he caught fire in the NCAA Tournament. As good as Tyler Ulis has played this season, it must be reassuring to John Calipari that Andrew is playing so well too as the calendar nears March. He led the Wildcats to the championship game last year, and that kind of postseason experience is invaluable for a point guard.
  3. Stories about Memorial Gymnasium’s quirkiness at Vanderbilt are inevitable every year. But next year, those yarns will have a fresh angle. Vanderbilt is extending the coaching box up the sideline for the 2015-16 season, meaning that coaches won’t just be confined to the baseline as they have been in the past. Only head coaches will be allowed in the expanded box, so the solitary figure strolling up and down the sidelines above the first few rows of fans will be another unique part of the games at Vanderbilt. There will probably be some changes on the court for the Commodores next year too, at least from a win-loss perspective. There is a drastic disparity between the team’s KenPom (#47) and RPI (#117) ratings this season –eight of the Commodores’ 12 losses have come by four points or fewer, and Kevin Stallings’ group should be a much bigger threat next season if Damian Jones returns.
  4. The Macon Telegraph’s Seth Emerson has some interesting tidbits on Georgia’s NCAA Tournament resume as we enter the stretch run. We’ve also officially reached the point in the season when it’s not too early to talk about SEC Tournament seeding. Georgia stands at 8-6, nipping on the heels of 10-5 Texas A&M and 10-4 Ole Miss. Making up that difference in the standings to earn a double-bye will be difficult, but the Bulldogs have one thing going for them. They’ve already beaten Texas A&M and could sweep the Rebels with a win this evening, which would give Georgia the tiebreaker over both if it comes to that. That makes tonight’s game at the Tad Pad all the more important for a team looking to get back on the right track.
  5. One phrase is noticeably absent in SEC conversations right now: hot seat. Unless something strange occurs down the stretch, it doesn’t look like there will be a new SEC coach coming on board in 2015-16. Reviewing the hot seat scenario David Changas painted back in October, the two most at-risk coaches were Alabama’s Anthony Grant and Mississippi State’s Rick Ray, and both appear to be safe. Alabama has been somewhat disappointing given how well the Tide’s non-conference schedule went, but at 17-11 overall and 7-8 in the SEC it isn’t likely that Grant will lose his job. The same can be said for Ray, as Mississippi State has clearly improved during the season and will have a senior-laden team (Craig Sword, Fred Thomas, Gavin Ware) ready to roll next year. The hottest seat right now might actually belong to Kim Anderson, with Missouri trudging through a miserable season and current athletic director Mike Alden set to depart in August. But it’s ridiculous to think that the new administration would part ways with a native son after a clear rebuilding year.
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SEC M5: Presidents Day Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 16th, 2015

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  1. Coach Cal took a step back from coach-speak to appreciate Kentucky’s program-record tying 25-0 start after the Wildcats walloped South Carolina on Saturday. “You just tied a record of the most storied program in the country,” he told his team. “You tied a record and you’re all freshmen and sophomores and Willie (Cauley-Stein, a junior).” A win at Tennessee will push these Wildcats past the 1953-54 Kentucky squad, but would only tie the best start for a team coached by Calipari. His 1995-96 UMass team led by Marcus Camby started 26-0 before losing at home to George Washington, and his Derrick Rose-led 2007-08 Memphis team got to 26-0 before losing at home to Tennessee in what was one of the biggest regular season games in recent memory. As fate would have it, if the Wildcats get to 26-0 they would face Bruce Pearl, the man who halted Cal’s 26-0 Memphis team, next Saturday. In any event, both of Cal’s 26-0 teams finished as the National Runner-up, and it would probably be considered a disappointment if this Kentucky squad followed suit.
  2. The SEC got plenty of ink in College Basketball Talk’s Saturday Bubble Banter. Texas A&M strengthened its profile, or at least avoided mucking it up, by holding on to beat Florida. Ole Miss and Georgia, on the other hand, took hits with home losses, but the Bulldogs will be dinged much more than the Rebels. Georgia’s loss at home to Auburn (RPI #162, KenPom #135) would be easier swallow had it happened on the road, but losing in Stegeman Coliseum to the Tigers was a surprise. The Bulldogs had generally taken care of business this season, going 7-2 against RPI 101-200 with the only other loss being their season opener against Georgia Tech. They should be fine, especially coming off a strong win at Texas A&M, but can’t afford another bad home loss with South Carolina coming to Athens on Tuesday. An unrelated statistical oddity about the Auburn-Georgia rivalry: the schools are 90-90 against each other in basketball and 55-55 against each other in football. Talk about not having bragging rights.
  3. Despite its inconsistencies, LSU can be a hard team to match up with since most nights the Tigers will have a huge athletic advantage in the front court. This showed in their win over Tennessee, where the Vols struggled to get good looks against LSU’s length. Jordan Mickey ended up with seven blocks and now has an NCAA-leading 91 blocks on the season, and as a team the Tigers have the sixth-most blocks in the country. Barring a late season collapse, it seems the Tigers are a safe bet to make the NCAA Tournament. Even if they wind up with a 10 or 11 seed, they should be in shape to take advantage of their athletic advantage down low and frustrate teams in the early rounds.
  4. Alabama has quietly been one of the more disappointing teams in conference play. The Tide are now just 5-7 in league play after dropping a must-win game at home to Vanderbilt. This comes after a 10-3 non-conference mark that included a win over UCLA and one-point loss at Wichita State, which was a marquee win Alabama had in their pocket before coughing it up late. To be fair, the schedule makers did the Tide no favors. They’ve already gotten Kentucky twice and have had to travel to Arkansas and LSU. But at the end of the day the NCAA Tournament is out of the picture for a team that has yet again had its offensive struggles under Anthony Grant. This season has been an improvement over last, but Grant’s job security continues to be an interesting question.
  5. Something fishy is going on in Eastern Missouri airspace. The plane chartered by Mississippi State lost an engine and had to make an emergency landing in St. Louis as the Bulldogs were on the way home after a win in Columbia. This comes just a few days after a plane carrying Kim Anderson had to make an emergency landing outside of St. Louis for a similar reason. Fortunately, no one was hurt either time. After his nerves evened out, Rick Ray must have been more pleased than usual with his team’s win. The Bulldogs let an 18-point slip away but held on for the victory, and have now won three SEC road games this season, which is a far cry from the 22-game conference road losing streak the program endured up until the January 21 win at Auburn. Building a program is all about positive momentum, and the Bulldogs have plenty of that right now.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume V

Posted by Greg Mitchell on February 3rd, 2015

For the next seven weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume V, including games from January 26 to February 2.

Team of the Week. I want to preface this by saying that Kentucky could – and probably should – be the team of the week every week. You don’t get to 21-0 without that being the case. But the Wildcats get plenty of praise from all corners of the web, so why not challenge ourselves with this week’s selection? The nod goes to Florida, the same team that Billy Donovan declared as being dead in terms of the NCAA Tournament a little over a week ago. The Gators’ long-term resurrection is still something of a pipe dream, but if the miracle occurs, last week is where it all will have started. Florida enjoyed a perfect week in knocking off solid opponents Alabama (KenPom #44) and Arkansas (#43) in ugly fashion. These were probably the Gators’ two best wins of the season, which with an overall record of 12-9 overall underscores how much work they still have to do. From a bid perspective, Florida is 1-5 against the RPI top 50 and 4-3 against the next 50; contrast this with fellow bubble team Kansas State  — which is 12-10 overall but 4-6 against the RPI top 50 — and you can see that Florida’s resume may not have the requisite depth to compete for a bid. Despite the pair of victories, last week highlighted some of the Gators’ inconsistencies that have plagued them all year long. After a 27-point outburst against Ole Miss, Michael Frazier scored just 11 points on 2-of-13 shooting. Similarly, Chris Walker followed up one of the best games of his career against the Tide (12 points and four rebounds on 6-of-8 shooting) with a dud against the Hogs (one point, two rebounds). Still, Florida is trending in the right direction as it approaches the ultimate chance for a quality win: Saturday in Gainesville against Kentucky.

Alex Caruso is the SEC's leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Alex Caruso is the SEC’s leader in assists and third in steals (d1nation.com).

Player of the Week. Danuel House was the SEC’s pick as Player of the Week, but we’ll give it to his slightly less-heralded junior teammate, Alex Caruso, as Texas A&M ran its winning streak to seven games with victories over Auburn and Vanderbilt. In both games Caruso was his usual stat-stuffing self, racking up averages of 10.0 points, 7.5 assists, 6.0 rebounds and 2.0 steals in 33.0 minutes per game. I firmly believe that the transitions of transfers House and Jalen Jones to their new team has gone so smoothly in large part because of Caruso’s play-making. He’s a bona fide SEC star who does not command the ball, and that is extremely valuable for a team looking to make the leap from also-ran to the NCAA Tournament. We may also be witnessing the rise of one of the great players in recent Texas A&M basketball history. Since 2009-10, no player in the conference has held as high of a career assist percentage (33.9%) or steal percentage (4.4%) as Caruso. LSU’s Jordan Mickey deserves mention in this space solely for his ridiculous 25-point, 20-rebound game in the Tigers’ loss to Mississippi State.

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SEC M5: The Super Bowl Hangover Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on February 2nd, 2015

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  1. John Calipari is on a never-ending assignment to poke holes in his Kentucky team. After cruising by Alabama on Saturday he told the Kentucky.com, “”One thing this team is not doing: Putting teams away when they have that opportunity.” Never mind that Kentucky has closed out three straight games to win by at least 15 points. On a micro level though, the Wildcats did struggle a bit handling the ball against Missouri, turning it over 14 times. They flipped the script against the Tide, turning it over just five times against a team that has turned over its opponents 11 times per game. Devin Booker showed the biggest improvement, as he didn’t turn it over at all after coughing it up four times in Columbia. At this point, however, it’s all nitpicking as the Wildcats are the last of the unbeatens left standing.
  2. Georgia’s five-game winning streak came to an end in Colonial Life Arena after a lackluster offensive performance against South Carolina. Marcus Thornton missed the game because of a concussion, and the Bulldogs were at a big disadvantage without their leading scorer and rebounder. Georgia actually won the rebounding battle by nine, but likely missed Thornton’s inside presence taking pressure off the guards. Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann and JJ Frazier combined to go seven-for-28, and after the game Gaines said that the Gamecocks “out-toughed” the Bulldogs. Thornton is easily the Bulldogs most physical player, and they’ll be in an even tougher spot heading to Lexington if he is still out. Concussions are a serious and tricky thing, and his status looks uncertain for the Super Tuesday match-up.
  3. The SEC may get a lot of action outside the lottery of the upcoming NBA draft. Bobby Portis, Jordan Mickey, Jarell Martin and any slew of Kentucky Wildcats could hear their names called. Another somewhat unexpected name could be joining the fray: Damian Jones. NBADraft.net has the Vanderbilt sophomore going 20th in its latest mock draft, and Bleacher Report’s has him going 29th. Losing Jones would obviously be a big blow to a Commodores team that figures to take a big step forward next year given how many young players are seeing major minutes. Still, Kevin Stallings has six other freshmen or sophomores averaging at least 19 minutes per game, and the sheer amount of experience should allow Vanderbilt to survive the potential loss of Jones and still be competitive next season. Ideally, however, the 2015-16 Commodores are anchored by Jones, and if that’s the case they could be smart pick to vault into the upper third of the SEC.
  4. Signs of progress. That’s what Mississippi State fans would need to spend the rest of the year searching for after a 2-9 stretch that bled into SEC play. For the last three weeks, signs of progress haven’t been hard to find. The Bulldogs are 3-3 over their last six games after taking care of LSU at home on Saturday. In that span they have ended a 22-game conference road losing streak and been in each game until the final minutes. And the team seems like they have learned from close losses to Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M, as they looked unphased after the Tigers took a 57-54 lead at the Hump with under four minutes left. Their zone did a nice job forcing the Tigers into difficult shots from their guards, instead of high percentage looks for Jordan Mickey. Two late fouls on made shots were inexcusable, but Mississippi State had built enough of a lead that it didn’t matter. The win was a nice culmination of what has been a positive few weeks for Rick Ray and his program.
  5. The season is beginning to spiral out of control for Missouri. A loss to Ole Miss was expected, but the Tigers got very little from their freshmen, and Tramaine Isabell missed the game after being suspended indefinitely. Kim Anderson didn’t mince words or hide behind coachspeak in saying that Isabell’s behavior towards teammates and coaches has been “unacceptable.” That doesn’t sound like a situation that will resolve itself quickly. It’s incredible in hindsight to think that this was a team some thought could compete for a NIT bid, even with its youth. The losses are now mounting (7-14) and none of the freshmen seem to be trending in the right direction, at least not consistently. To get some positive momentum the Tigers will need Montaque Gill-Caesar, Namon Wright or Jakeenan Gant to string together a few solid outings.
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The SEC Week That Was: Volume IV

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 27th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume IV, including games from January 19-25.

Team of the Week. Welcome to the party, Texas A&M. The Aggies are riding a four-game winning streak after beating Missouri (home) and Tennessee (road) last week. It’s their longest conference winning streak since joining the SEC, and the win over the resurgent Vols in Thompson-Boling Arena was a nice exclamation mark. Tennessee’s match-up zone had frustrated Arkansas, Missouri and South Carolina, but the Aggies – which have generally struggled to score in the Billy Kennedy era – were able to shoot 48 percent from the field in the victory. That’s obviously a good sign. Texas A&M’s development potential is also something to keep an eye on. Five key rotation pieces are playing their first year in College Station: Jalen Jones (transfer), Danuel House (transfer), Alex Robinson (freshman), Peyton Allen (freshman) and Tony Trocha-Morelos (freshman). Alex Caruso is again leading the conference in assists per game (5.3) and assist rate (36.7%), and the Aggies’ offense should continue to improve as he gets more experience playing alongside primary scorers Jones and House.

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

JJ Frazier had the self-described best game of his career in scoring 37 points against Mississippi State (ajc.com).

Player of the Week. Quick, who is Georgia’s best player? If you didn’t say J.J. Frazier than you’re probably wrong, at least as far the previous week is concerned. The Bulldogs’ point guard gets the nod almost solely for what he did in staving off Mississippi State last Saturday. The sophomore scored 37 points, including a blistering seven-for-seven from three. He told the AP that it was the best game of his career, and it came at a big moment for surging Georgia. The Bulldogs got just 24 points combined from Kenny Gaines, Charles Mann, Marcus Thornton and Nemanja Djurisic. That kind of production, or lack thereof, from a team’s main horses almost always results in a loss. And a loss to Mississippi State would’ve been bad for Georgia’s tournament hopes. But Frazier didn’t let it happen, and he may be battling Armani Moore for the title of most improved player in the conference. He is second in the league in true shooting percentage (65.3%), and is taking care of the ball very well (1.4 turnover per game) despite seeing his role as primary ball handler drastically increased over what it was last season.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume III

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 20th, 2015

For the next nine weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume III, including games from January 12-18.

Team of the week. It took three rounds of this column to get there, but the league Colossus finally gets the nod. Kentucky did in the second week of SEC play what so many predicted it would do in the first — thrash its opponents. The Wildcats beat Missouri by more points (49) than it allowed the Tigers to score (37), and, as Brian pointed out earlier this week, it was the best defensive (points per possession) performance in conference play in the Calipari era. The ‘Cats followed up that victory with an easy 22-point win against a good Alabama team. Its defense was again outstanding, but it was the Kentucky offense that caught my eye in Tuscaloosa. Just one week after a rough outing in College Station (28.1% FG, 32.1% 3FG, 25-of-35 FTs), the Wildcats were hyper-efficient in a slow-paced game (50% FG, 47% 3FG, 16-of-18 FTs). If that’s a sign of the Wildcats’ offense to come, it’s worth wondering whether this team may actually cut down the nets in early April sporting a goose egg in the loss column.

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Tyler Ulis led an efficient Kentucky attack against Alabama with 11 points and two assists (AP Photo).

Player of the Week. Let’s follow the crowd and hand it to Tennessee’s Armani Moore. The junior wing won the SEC’s Player of the Week award and it was well-deserved. He contributed solid scoring totals in last week’s wins over Arkansas (14) and Missouri (15), but more importantly scored crucial points late in both games. His two free throws sealed the Vols’ victory over Arkansas, and he broke a tie-game in Columbia with under four minutes to go with a contested layup. The 6’5″ Moore also helped an undersized Tennessee front line win the rebounding battle in both games. Texas A&M’s Jalen Jones, who played well in returning from an ankle injury, and Georgia’s Kenny Gaines, who guided the Bulldogs through a crucial undefeated week, also deserve mention.

Tournament Chatter. Can you say mediocrity? The league currently has seven teams sitting at 2-2, and the only 3-1 teams (Tennessee and Florida) appear to be well behind several of those in the NCAA Tournament pecking order. None of the fringe NCAA contenders have yet played their way out of the picture but we could be headed toward the league’s nightmare scenario. A team or two separating from the pack would lock in a few bids, but if the soft middle continues to beat up on each other without rhyme or reason, it risks damaging everyone’s profile. Still, 10 (10!) teams are worth mentioning and that’s not too bad.

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The SEC Week That Was: Volume II

Posted by Greg Mitchell on January 13th, 2015

For the next 10 weeks or so, we’ll run down a few weekly superlatives from league play, take a look at how conference teams look in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, and anything else that merits discussion. Here is Volume II, including games from January 5-11.

Team of the Week. There were three strong contenders for this award this week, but Arkansas gets the nod on the strength of a 2-0 record that included wins over KenPom top 55 teams Georgia and Vanderbilt. By beating Georgia in Athens, the Razorbacks achieved something that has been a rarity under Mike Anderson: beating a quality team on the road. And it wasn’t easy. Arkansas had to overcome an 11-point deficit against a confident Bulldogs team that was riding a six-game winning streak of its own, but the Razorbacks cut into the lead by imposing their frenetic style on Georgia and forcing 17 turnovers. They had been similarly disruptive in their other road win this season, at SMU (19 TOs), but not as much in losses to Iowa State (11 TOs) and Clemson (14 TOs). We know that Anderson’s press is highly effective in Bud Walton Arena, but whether it works when the Razorbacks are on the road will be something to watch as the season unfolds. Honorable mention this week goes to Florida, which earned a hard-fought win against South Carolina before pummelling Mississippi State.

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Bobby Portis tore up the Vanderbilt defense to the tune of 32 points (wholehogsports.com).

Player of the Week. Bobby Portis had his way with the Commodores’ front line on Saturday, scoring 32 points on 13-of-18 shooting and dunking on every other possession (or so it seemed). He might be the most offensively skilled big man in the SEC this season, and his athleticism provides a great asset guarding the in-bounder as the first wave in the Arkansas press. In the Hawg’s win over Georgia, Portis contributed 21 points and even hit a three-pointer during the game. He’s been exceptionally effective from deep, making 9-of-15 three-point attempts on the season, but the fact he’s attempted so few shows that he hasn’t gotten carried away in trying to show NBA scouts that he has range. Where he’s lethal is in using his athleticism around the rim and making himself available on cuts through the lane. If he keeps living in that sweet spot, the Razorbacks will remain very difficult to defend. Florida’s Dorian Finney-Smith also deserves some love this week as he combined for 36 points and 13 rebounds in wins over South Carolina and Mississippi State. Despite playing with an injured non-shooting hand, the senior is shooting very well from three (39%) and grabbing defensive rebounds at a ridiculous rate (22.3%) over the first two conference games. The Gators couldn’t afford to miss a beat from him and they haven’t.

Tournament Chatter. Let’s not dress this week up because it was not a kind week for the SEC’s hopes to get more than two teams into the NCAA Tournament. I thoroughly believe that the overall depth of the conference is better than last year, but if Selection Sunday were held today you might be looking at a two-bid league. Kentucky and Arkansas seem safe, but beyond that is anyone’s guess.

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SEC M5: New Year’s Eve Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 31st, 2014

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  1. College Basketball Talk’s Rob Dauster writes that Kentucky’s New Year’s resolution should be to give Tyler Ulis more playing time at the point guard position because he’s better than Andrew Harrison. He also writes that the reason that may not happen is because Coach Cal will be hesitant to rock the boat and upset his incumbent sophomore starter. There is no doubt that Harrison’s body language wasn’t great in the Saturday win over Louisville, but no one outside of the program knows how Harrison truly feels about his performance. Maybe he was upset that he was being outplayed by a freshman, or maybe he was upset that he laid an egg in the Wildcats’ biggest game of the year. Either way, we’ve officially reached the first blip on the Big Blue Nation drama watch. I don’t expect Harrison to lose his starting spot at Kentucky anytime soon, but if the Wildcats are in a tight game late it’s reasonable to think the freshman will have the ball in his hands.
  2. Speaking of UIis, CBSSports.com named him the Tisdale Freshman of the Week, and he cracked the top 10 of the Tisdale Award Watch for the first time this season. The diminutive but talented guard also took home the SEC’s Freshman of the Week award. He’ll never put up big stats, but it’s nice to see him getting recognition for how vital he has been to the success of the Wildcats. In one fell swoop, he’s filled Kentucky’s twin needs for a selfless distributor ( 3.7 APG; 4.3 FGA per game) and a reliable three-point shooter (52.2%). The exciting part for fans is that Ulis will almost certainly be in Lexington for multiple seasons, and if Calipari could pick one type of player to have in-house as his talented freshmen classes arrive, it would probably be a rock solid point guard with plenty of winning experience.
  3. South Carolina head coach Frank Martin might soon have another player at his disposal as freshman wing Shamiek Sheppard is now practicing after suffering a torn ACL over the summer. Without any setbacks going forward, the three-star recruit could see some playing time this season. Sheppard’s slashing ability would be a boost for a team that has only gotten to the line a measly 206 times this year (276th in the country). In the past two rebuilding seasons it might have been smarter to leave the redshirt on the freshman and save his year of eligibility, but the Gamecocks may not be rebuilding anymore. They are currently on a five-game winning streak, boast a dynamic backcourt, and are 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency. That gives them as good a shot as any SEC team to rack up a bunch of wins in league play.
  4. Alabama did not light up the scoreboard in its recent win over UCLA, but the Crimson Tide finally sealed the deal against a quality name opponent. They also didn’t set the world on fire offensively in their near-win at Wichita State, a surprise given that early in the year it looked like the Crimson Tide would have a high-powered offense. The folks at Roll Bama Roll feel that Anthony Grant has reverted back to “Grantsketball” lately in slowing down the offense and trying to grind out games, and that the Tide would be better off opening things up. The numbers bear this out, as the Tide have indeed averaged 61 possessions in their last four games after averaging 72 possessions in their first seven games. Grant knows the pulse of his team better than anyone else, but he shouldn’t be afraid to take some chances considering what Levi Randolph (16.4 PPG), Rodney Cooper (13.5 PPG) and Ricky Tarrant (10.6 PPG) are capable of doing.
  5. ESPN’s Myron Medcalf wrote a feature on Arkansas’ Bobby Portis, and it is definitely worth a read. The sophomore’s back story is inspiring, as he has had to overcome a lot of adversity to get to where he is now. The Little Rock native grew up wanting to play for the Razorbacks, and could be the player to lead them back to their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2008. Right now, you’d have to put him at the forefront of the SEC Player of the Year race, along with Willie Cauley-Stein, Damian Jones and Jarell Martin. Portis has been a consistent scorer and rebounder all season long, and perhaps more importantly, he didn’t fade away in the Razorbacks’ two biggest games of the year. In a road win over SMU, he had 22 points and five rebounds, and even though Arkansas got rolled by Iowa State it wasn’t because of Portis’ efforts, as he contributed 19 points and eight rebounds.
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Assessing the Challengers to Kentucky’s SEC Crown

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 19th, 2014

It’s a month into the college basketball season and every conference has unanswered questions. For all its faults, the SEC more or less stands alone among the major conferences in that we know with reasonable certainty which team will be taking home the regular season and tournament titles. If you’re betting against Kentucky in this league this season, then you clearly haven’t been watching. But after the Wildcats at the top, there are at least six teams that can make a realistic claim as the second-best team in the conference. Here’s how the race stacks up as we slog through final exams:

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

Bobby Portis is in the conversation for SEC POY, but can he lead Arkansas up the conference ladder? (thesportsseer.com).

  • Arkansas (7-2, Best Win: SMU, Worst Loss: Clemson). If nothing else it has been an eventful month for the Hogs. They stormed into the national polls after a 6-0 start. They won on the road at SMU. People were excited. But then Arkansas fell flat in a marquee game at Iowa State and followed it up with a perplexing loss to Clemson. So really, we are left with the same questions we had about the Razorbacks coming into the season. They look better, but are they NCAA tournament better? To its credit, Arkansas may have the front-runner for SEC Player of the Year in Bobby Portis, who is among the league’s top 10 in points per game (15.8), rebounds per game (6.8), blocks per game (1.6), effective field goal percentage (60.2%) and PER (26.7).
  • Texas A&M (7-2, BW: Arizona State, WL: Baylor). The Aggies’ most compelling argument is not the team they are now, but the one they could be in a few months. Billy Kennedy got an early Christmas present when Danuel House and Tony Trocha-Morelos became eligible. House has immediately become a key cog for the Aggies, leading the team in minutes per game (29.2) and adding a jolt of athleticism to the perimeter. Any doubt about his role should have been erased when he got the last shot in a tie game against Sam Houston State. Freshman Alex Robinson has also at times looked like the best player on the team. The Aggies don’t have any eye-popping wins and recently got rolled by Baylor, but they have good potential as players get accustomed to playing together.

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SEC M5: 12.19.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell (@gregpmitchell) on December 19th, 2014

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  1. The Louisville Courier-Journal’s Tim Sullivan writes that John Calipari’s biggest challenge this season might be instilling enough doubt in his team so that they don’t completely buy the hype. There’s no doubt Cal needs to latch on to any struggle he can to keep the Wildcats on their toes, but I don’t think he’s going at it alone. A good part of the team was around for last year’s six conference losses. Willie Cauley-Stein was around for that and the epic disappointment that was 2012-13. These players may have confidence, but I doubt they have short memories, and Cal should have support keeping the team focused.
  2. Uttering the word “Clemson” around this microsite is risky business. Legend has it if you say the word three times Brad Brownell will appear and ruin the dreams of your favorite SEC squad. The Tigers have, after all, already beaten Arkansas, LSU and Auburn while losing to Winthrop, Gardner-Webb and Rutgers. South Carolina gets its shot at its arch rival tonight, and the importance of the game isn’t lost on Frank Martin. “Any time you play those kind of games, you’re playing for your school, first and foremost,” Martin told GoGamecocks.com. “But you’re also representing your conference. And we take pride in that.” The Gamecocks have a good chance to end the SEC’s Clemson skid as they looked good demolishing Oklahoma State almost two weeks ago. Duane Notice has also stepped up his game in a big way, scoring 47 points in his last two games.
  3. The sun probably hasn’t set on Alabama’s tournament chances, but the Tide need to get on a roll to (no pun intended) to truly get in the discussion. The folks at Roll Bama Roll suggest that more of the offensive game plan should involve Michael Kessens, and the numbers certainly back that up. He’s posted the best effective field goal percentage on the team, and looks comfortable with the ball anywhere on the floor. It’ll be interesting to see how Anthony Grant divides up minutes between Kessens and fellow sophomore Shannon Hale the rest of the way, especially since Hale is shooting three’s at a worse rate than last year.
  4. Jakeenan Gant’s debut was a bright spot in what has been a difficult opening season for Kim Anderson at Missouri. The freshman finally gained eligibility and was able to take the court in the Tigers loss to Xavier, scoring 13 points on 4-of-8 shooting. This was a surprise to his coach. “I really didn’t expect that much from him just because he hadn’t really been playing with the first group of guys,” Anderson told the Columbia Missourian. “But I was really pleased with the way he came in.” This year will largely be about the development of Gant, Jonathan Williams and Teki Gill-Caesar. The Tigers looked good for portions of the Xavier game, and can build on this with a rivalry game against Illinois tomorrow.
  5. Until last night the only Division I team that Arkansas State, with an RPI of 339 and KenPom rating of 192, had beaten was Central Arkansas. Then they went to Starkville and beat Mississippi State. This was a truly damaging defeat. “Even beyond that, we’ve got to start giving a return on the investment. I think the administration; everybody’s invested in this program. We have to start giving a return on that investment,” Rick Ray told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger. In a league with no shortage of bad losses this season, this may have been the worst. As Ray said, it’s frustrating because you would have thought the program would be above this type of result at this point in his tenure. Maybe it was a bad outing, but the Bulldogs are mired in a four game losing streak and need to start building some positive momentum or questions about Ray’s job security may begin to surface.
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SEC M5: 12.17.14 Edition

Posted by Greg Mitchell on December 17th, 2014

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  1. Without a doubt, Alabama blew a gigantic opportunity for a statement win by coughing up a lead in the final seconds of last night’s loss at Wichita State. There is no way to sugarcoat it. The Tide held an 11-point lead with five minutes remaining, but a combination of missed shots, bad rebounding and turnovers against the press allowed the Shockers to come back and win. The moral victory of hanging close against a very good team on the road likely won’t have any positive impact on the Tide’s resume, but let’s look for a silver lining. Alabama defended very well, holding the Shockers to 53 points — 25 fewer than their season average — in stifling the 10th most-efficient offense in the country. Much of Alabama’s second half lead was built on Wichita State settling for three-pointers (5-of-18) over an effective zone. Not to peek ahead, but a formula utilizing the Tide’s length and athleticism, could potentially hold up well against a Kentucky team that struggles from the outside (it always comes back to the Wildcats, doesn’t it?). Circle January 17 (home) and 31 (away) on your SEC calendar.
  2. LSU held on to win a competitive game against Sam Houston State last weekend to run its winning streak to four games. It wasn’t all rosy, though, as Josh Gray left the game with an ankle injury, and was seen afterward walking on crutches. Johnny Jones said on Monday that Gray was receiving “aggressive treatment,” but it’s unknown as of this writing whether he’ll miss any games. Ankle injuries can be tricky to heal, and if Gray does miss time it’ll trim down an already thin roster (Jones used only eight players against Sam Houston State). Tim Quarterman, a player who is enjoying a breakout season, would likely slide into the starting point guard role, with freshman Jalyn Patterson also seeing more minutes. The injury does come at a good time of the season for the Tigers, as their toughest non-conference stretch is now behind them and they have games against beatable teams like UAB, College of Charleston and Southern Miss over the next two weeks.
  3. Arkansas got back on track with a win over Dayton last weekend in a game that saw Mike Anderson shuffle his starting lineup. JuCo transfer Jabril Durham got the start at point guard over senior Rashad Madden, who went scoreless and turned the ball over five times in 31 minutes against Clemson. This also came a few days after Anderson said that Madden was “trying to do too much.” Booting a senior from the starting lineup in favor of a first-year player is a precarious road to walk, but it seemed to work out well enough as Durham hit two three-pointers early and Madden scored 12 points (including 8-of-8 from the free throw line). So far, it looks like Anderson knew what buttons to push, and that’s important because Madden’s scoring ability is a key to the success of the Razorbacks’ season.
  4. Two SEC players made College Basketball Talk’s list of the 10 most important midseason additions: Florida’s Alex Murphy and Auburn’s Trayvon Reed. Of the two, Reed seems to be the one needed the most. The article mentions that the 7’1’’ center is incredibly raw and likely won’t contribute much this season, but the guess is that Bruce Pearl will throw Reed into the fire early since this season was always going to be more about development than contention. Reed logged eight largely unproductive minutes (four fouls, one block) in Auburn’s recent loss to Clemson, and he’ll probably consume at least part of the 11.0 minutes per game going forward that was going to Devin Waddell.
  5. Jerry Palm’s first update to his NCAA Tournament bracket projection has three SEC teams in the fold: Kentucky (#1), LSU (#10) and Arkansas (#10). Alabama and Tennessee are among Palm’s first four out, and Florida is nowhere to be found on his board right now. All things considered, this is a pretty generous view of the SEC given how the season has unfolded thus far. The Tigers and Razorbacks have both notched some nice wins, but they also have experienced setbacks that threaten to snuff them from the conversation (e.g., both teams have lost to Clemson). The simple fact that, in Palm’s view, they are still squarely into the Dance should be encouraging. Neither Alabama (sorta) nor Tennessee (very much so) were thought of as NCAA Tournament teams prior to the season, so seeing them on the fringe in December is encouraging for the league. And finally there is Florida, which many believe will right its ship and find a way into the party, especially given Dorian Finney-Smith’s recent resurgence.
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SEC M5: 12.15.14 Edition

Posted by David Changas on December 15th, 2014

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  1. Tennessee center Dominic Woodson left the Volunteers’ program over the weekend after having been held out of the team’s prior two games because of academic issues. Given that he had experienced some problems during his (only) freshman season at Memphis, his departure could not have come as much of a surprise for head coach Donnie Tyndall. Woodson often talked about turning things around, but after being declared immediately eligible to play in the fall, things never materialized for him. He averaged 12 minutes, 3.5 points and 2.0 rebounds per game in his four contests, but after the Volunteers pulled off an upset of No. 15 Butler in Knoxville on Sunday, this may be a clear case of addition by subtraction.
  2. One of the most impressive things John Calipari has done with his team this year is to keep everyone happy. Anyone who watches Kentucky play sees that all of the players appear to be having fun despite the fact that none averages more than 24 minutes per game. It’s therefore no surprise that, after the Wildcats’ loss of Alex Poythress for the season from an ACL injury, the Big Blue Nation rallied around him to provide emotional support. Just prior to tipoff of Saturday’s game against North Carolina, chants of “Al-ex Poy-thress!” from the Rupp Arena crowd showed the fans’ support for the junior forward. The student-filled eRUPPtion Zone took it a step further, wearing “Roar for 22″ shirts, referencing Poythress’ number. While it’s been easy for fans to root for the Wildcats in Calipari’s six years at the school, family-oriented actions like these are the subtler part of the reason the nation’s best high schoolers flock to Lexington to play for Calipari.
  3. Auburn received word late last week that Trayvon Reed, who originally signed with Maryland but was not allowed to enroll there because of a July arrest relating to a misdemeanor second-degree assault of a police officer, is now eligible. The 7’2″ center played eight minutes – although he didn’t score or grab any rebounds – in Sunday’s 72-61 loss at Clemson. It is unlikely Reed will make much of an impact this year, and it remains to be seen where he fits into Bruce Pearl’s long-term plans, but for an undersized Auburn team, having the former four-star recruit on board can’t hurt. The loss to Clemson dropped Auburn to a 3-5 record on the season, and it looks like the rebuilding project Pearl inherited on the Plains will take some time.
  4. Alabama lost its second-leading scorerRicky Tarrant, after only eight minutes in Saturday’s 65-53 home win over Tennessee Tech. It does not appear that the junior point guard, who is in his first season at Alabama after transferring from Tulane, will miss much time, though, after leaving the game with cramps. Along with seniors Rodney Cooper and Levi Randolph, Tarrant (13.4 PPG) helps provide much of the Crimson Tide’s scoring punch. Alabama’s only losses have come to Iowa State in Kansas City and at Xavier, but it would like to have Tarrant back at 100 percent for what may be the toughest test of the non-conference schedule, a trip to Wichita State Tuesday.
  5. Thanks to 26 points from freshman guard Riley LaChance and 64 percent shooting from three-point range, Vanderbilt toppled Purdue, 81-71, on Saturday night in Nashville. The entertaining match-up was otherwise insignificant on the national scale, but anyone who follows either program closely might have thought it would have more meaning than the average non-conference game for Commodores’ head coach Kevin Stallings. According to the Purdue alumnus and Gene Keady protege, it was just another game, and the fact that it came against his alma mater meant very little. It is certainly not surprising that Stallings, who in his 16th season at Vanderbilt is the dean of SEC coaches, is not sentimental, but you might think it would have had a bit more meaning to him. “It’s not really [special]. It’s an important game because it’s our next one and we’re coming off a loss and it’s a game against a very good team,” he said before the game. Given the way his young team played, it’s hard to argue with how Stallings approached the contest.
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